Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.


The Penal-Substitution Theory of the atonement was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm's Satisfaction theory. Anselm's theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ's work and its necessity; however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God's honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This Reformed view says simply that Christ died for man, in man's place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man's sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.

Relevant Scripture

  • Isaiah 53:6 - "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
  • Isaiah 53:12 - "yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors."
  • Romans 3:25
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 - "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
  • Galatians 3:13 - "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -- for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree."
  • Hebrews 10:1-4

The penal aspect of the atonement is often a stumbling block to modern theology, yet some would say "it is the dominant Atonement imagery used in the Bible." [1] By way of contrast, those who hold to a Governmental theory of atonement not only deny the penal aspect of the atonement but also substitution in the normal sense of the word. To such people, Christ died not as a substitute for sinners but as a substitute for punishment.

Propitiation language

"The language of propitiation specifically implies God's hatred of sin and emphasizes the gracious work of Christ as sin-bearer (Rom. 3:25). The Bible further includes the forensic, legal language of justification (Rom. 3:20-26, 4:25, 5:16-18). These images make clear the reality of our guilt and the required penalty." Dever

See main article on Propitiation.

This is a section stub. Please edit it to add information.

Relation to other doctrines

The principle of penal substitution is held, by many of its proponents, to be the control through which all other views of the accomplishments of Christ on the cross are to be seen and the mechanic by which all other accomplishments work. Some examples of this are given below.

The cross as ransom.
Jesus is described as having paid our ransom on the cross; but this image only works because Jesus was paying our penalty in our stead.
The cross as example.
Christians truly should be inspired by Christ's work on the cross to self-sacrifice; but this only happens because before our identification with Christ in his sufferings, Christ identified with us in our sin, bearing the punishment due in place of us.
The cross as victory.
Christ's death and resurrection were real victories over sin and death and hell; but once again, we only take part in the victory of the Son of God by virtue of our union with him, we can only be united with him if our sin is dealt with, that can only happen by the punishment for our sin being borne, and that punishment was borne by Christ our substitute.
The cross as reconciliation.
"...God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them..." (2 Cor. 5:19, ESV). The exchange being contemplated here is that our sins are taken away by Christ's death and thus, we are made acceptable to God.

For further explanation and clarification, see Stott's The Cross of Christ, which deals with this controlling imagery in some detail (pp. 168-203, 217-224, 231-239).


It is worth noting that a number of the critiques or cautions regarding Penal Substitution come from those who embrace it. Major proponents of Penal Substitution such as J. I. Packer, and James Denney have all critiqued various aspects of Penal Substitution.

  • Packer critiques any attempt to found it solely on human models of retributive justice and suggests that it be seen not as a mechanical explanation (how it works) but rather kerygmatically (what it means to us). [1]
  • Denney critiques the idea that it is merely forensic and judicial, saying that these are impersonal cold terms. "Few things have astonished me more than to be charged with teaching a 'forensic' or 'legal' or 'judicial' doctrine of Atonement... There is nothing that I should wish to reprobate more whole-heartedly than the conception which is expressed by these words"[2]

However, these critiques are not aimed at debunking the theory, but rather to rescue it from its "cruder" forms of expression.

Some note that it is not representative of the Early Church

Gustav Aulen in his book Christus Victor argues that Penal Substitution is not rooted in a biblical understanding. He further argues that the early church father's primary model of the atonement was the dramatic image of Christ overcoming sin, death, and the devil which as come to be known as the "Christ Victor" view of the atonement[3].

A majority of Evangelical theologians while they would give primacy to the Penal Substitution view acknowledge that Scripture has a number of ways of speaking of the atonement, of which Penal Substitution is one of many theories. One prominent example being John Stott in his classic "The Cross of Christ" [4]

Other Evangelical theologians go a step further, while still affirming Penal Substitution, they have come to view the Christus Victor view of the Atonement as more central because it goes beyond dealing only with man's sin and speaking of God's victory over the whole cosmos. One example of this is Gregory Boyd in his book "God at War"[5]. Scot McKnight for example writes,

"What I want to say is not that this theory is wrong... I want to say is that the atonement is so much more than this. And, if it is so much more than this, then it follows that using “penal substitution” as our guiding term is inadequate and misleads others. At the least, it does not provide enough information to explain what one really believes occurs in the Atonement" [6]

See main article on Christus Victor.

Some view it as unjust

Opponents have argued that the idea of Penal Substitution is based solely on the concept of a criminal justice system which demands punishment for transgression. But no criminal justice system in the world would ever say that it is just to punish the innocent in place of the guilty. Some of the more prominent critics of penal substitutionary theory, who advanced arguments such as these, include Peter Abelard who criticized what he saw as the inherit injustice of Anselm's theory, and Faustus Socinus in his polemic De Jesu Christo Servatore (Of Jesus Christ the Saviour).

"What Socinus did was to arraign this idea as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Giving pardon, he argued, does not square with taking satisfaction, nor does the transferring of punishment from the guilty to the innocent square with justice" J. I. Packer

Some argue that it is based on Natural Theology

J.I. Packer cautions that Penal Substitution was formulated during a period when "Protestant exegesis of Scripture was colored by an uncriticized and indeed unrecognized natural theology of law. . . drawn from the world of contemporary legal and political thought" [2]. Natural theology refers to knowledge of God drawn from our world around us (in this case from their own judicial concepts) as opposed to knowledge of God contained in the revelation of Scripture. Although Packer demurs basing Penal Substitution on the Natural theology of law and limiting the concept to retributive language, he nevertheless argues for the "substantial rightness of the Reformed view of the atonement."

Some suggest it necessarily implies universalism

"It seems logical that if the death of Yeshua satisfied God's need for justice, and if humans made no contribution to the process, then salvation and atonement should be granted to everyone -- to Christian believers and unbelievers alike. It is unclear why only those individuals who trust Yeshua as Lord and Savior will attain salvation, atonement, and Heaven." [3]

This argument has merit if indeed Christ died for all alike and his atonement is effectual for all alike. But that requires other theological assumptions to be superimposed on the doctrine.

See main article on universalism.

Some see it as "a form of cosmic Child Abuse"

In the UK, prominent member of the Evangelical Alliance Steve Chalke has popularised an attack on penal substitution which argues it portrays God as vengeful and unable to have a loving relationship with his son Jesus. This has given rise to a significant backlash, an example of which can be found in the post Steve Chalke and the Lost Message of Jesus on Adrian Warnock's blog. Steve Chalke has said that penal substitution is "a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice" and is incompatible "at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God." Banner of Truth

Some see it necessarily implying definite atonement

See main article on definite atonement.

Some tend to reject the penal-substitutionary aspect of the atonement because it seems to imply a limited or definite design in the atonement. However, it is worth noting that some scholars holding to penal substitution maintain that definite atonement is not a corollary of the position (see for instance, I. Howard Marshall (footnote 68).

Some argue that He paid the debt of righteousness, not the penalty of death

"Jesus is the only one who made a pure and perfect sacrifice of His life - when He died for our sakes on the cross. This was the debt He paid on our behalf. It was not the penalty of death. He paid the debt of righteousness - the gift to God of a righteous life, which is our due. Christ's righteousness is our covering if we are united in Him. The Father accepts us along with His Son. He has paid our due offering that we may be covered by His life and judged righteous. 'There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus' (Rom.8:1). His righteous life is imputed to us who look to Him and walk in the Spirit in oneness with Christ. It is Jesus who is 'THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS' (Jer.23:6). Of ourselves, we can never be righteous. It is only through faith in Christ."'The Biblical Revelation of the Cross' - Online Edition, Ch.1, 'It is not good to punish an innocent man', p.17, by Norman McIlwain


  1. J.I. Packer, “The Logic of Penal Substitution” in Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Paternoster , 2002) p. 88. Packer's essay is also available online Here
  2. James Denney, Atonement And The Modern Mind, (Hodder And Stoughton, 1903) p.271, as quoted by Packer in note 28 of his essay above
  3. Gustav Aulen (transl. by A. G. Herber) Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, (Macmillan:New York, 1977)
  4. Stott, Op Sit,p. 165ff
  5. Gregory Boyd,God at War, (InterVarsity 1977) p. 240
  6. Scot McKnight on his blog ""



  • Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) Chap. 17 The Character of the Cross Work of Christ.
  • J. I. Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998) chap. 8 "What Did the Cross Achieve?" Chap. 9 Sacrifice and Satisfaction.
  • J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downer’s Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973) chap.15 "The Wrath of God"; chap. 18 "The Heart of the Gospel".
  • Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) Chap. 8 The Cross in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
  • Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
  • John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986).
  • J. I. Packer & Mark Dever, editors, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).


  • Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins Of, And Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine, ISBN 0814652204
  • Norman McIlwain, 'The Biblical Revelation of the Cross', EAN 9780955102905 Online Edition

See also

External links



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